Getty Images

PREVIEW: GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma

Leave a comment

SONOMA, Calif. – And so it ends, once again. The 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series has ticked off races at a rapid pace and the 85-lap finale, the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma (Sunday, 6:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN), will wrap the campaign for the third straight year.

Scott Dixon’s run to a surprise title in 2015 packed all the drama, while mechanical woes for Will Power ended his hopes and secured the crown for Simon Pagenaud here last year.

These three, plus points leader Josef Newgarden and IndyCar’s perpetual nearly man Helio Castroneves have the most realistic shots at this year’s championship.

Without further adieu, here’s the talking points heading into Sonoma:

2017 GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma – Talking Points

Four… maybe five-way title fight?

With the top four drivers covered by 34 points, it’s most likely going to be Newgarden, Dixon, Castroneves or Pagenaud that pulls off the title. Power, at 68 points back, still has a shot but would need to win and would need a lot of help to leapfrog the four drivers in front of him. Alexander Rossi and Graham Rahal are all but certain to be eliminated once the green flag flies.

You can read more on the “fab four” here and their title prospects here.

It’s almost guaranteed a Team Penske or Chip Ganassi Racing driver will win at Sonoma as these two teams have won the last 10 Sonoma races since 2007, split six Penske (Power three, Castroneves, Pagenaud and Ryan Briscoe one) and four Ganassi (Dixon three and Dario Franchitti one).

Pagenaud won from pole last year, the first polesitter to win the race since Power in 2011. Qualifying position is critical as Dixon, who started ninth in 2015, is the only driver to qualify outside the top-five and win this race since it came back on the schedule in 2005.

Top spoilers?

Andretti Autosport’s pace at Sonoma was particularly impressive last year as they hit on a setup that had eluded them all season. Ryan Hunter-Reay hasn’t won at Sonoma but has finished between second and sixth in each of the last four Sonoma races since getting speared there in 2012. Alexander Rossi was fifth last year, his second-best result of his rookie year, and enters fresh off his win at Watkins Glen. Both Marco Andretti and Takuma Sato have been occasional top-10 finishers at Sonoma as well, Andretti’s 2006 win here having been the last non-Penske/Ganassi Sonoma winner.

Others of note: Graham Rahal was second here last year and Charlie Kimball third in 2015, and both are coming off solid runs at Watkins Glen two weeks ago. Chevrolet, though, has won all six races at Sonoma since engine competition was re-introduced in 2012.

Other non-title points battles

Beyond the championship, there’s a handful of other positions in the standings up for grabs:

  • The battle for fifth: If they can’t scale the mountain that lies ahead in the battle for the title, any of Will Power (492), Alexander Rossi (476), Graham Rahal (466) and Takuma Sato (421) could move into fifth with a win or a great result. The latter three are vying to be the second-best Honda this year behind Dixon.
  • The final spots in the top-10. Tony Kanaan sits ninth (375) ahead of Ryan Hunter-Reay (373), James Hinchcliffe and Max Chilton (360 each). With only 15 points covering the four of them, the top two finishing drivers among them are the likely ones to end in the final two top-10 positions.

This could be (or is) the end for so many

Whether it’s drivers in their final races with their current teams, or perhaps in the series altogether, or the manufacturer aero kits, there’s a number of entities drawing to a close at Sonoma. Such is the reality of the end-of-term race for a season that it always feels like the last day of school until the field reconvenes at St. Petersburg in the spring with renewed optimism and hopes.

The “part-time young guns look to star” crowd

Any of Indy Lights veterans Spencer Pigot, Jack Harvey or debuting Zachary Claman De Melo will look to emerge from the part-time driver crowd and join fellow Indy Lights veteran Ed Jones in the full-time IndyCar field for 2018 with one star drive in the Sonoma finale. Pigot already has, courtesy of his Thursday confirmation. If any or all of these three can bank a solid top-10 finish, it’d be a great result to hang their hat on going into the offseason.

The final word

From Dixon, who will single-handedly look to topple the quartet of Team Penske drivers and win a fifth title: “It’s a better position than what we were in 2015, but that guarantees you pretty much nothing. It’s good to be in the hunt and have a tight gap right there, but we’re still going to have to do our best to beat four of the closest competitors right there.

“I think it’s a very worthy IndyCar circuit. I think it’s a fantastic spot for a Verizon IndyCar Series championship finale, especially for spectators, too, because it’s one of those circuits that from most vantage points you have a very good advantage of being able to see the whole circuit.

“Yeah, for me it’s probably one of the toughest circuits to get right, to be honest, and it requires a lot of different thinking, I think, on the approach to setup at what we would typically do at a lot of other tracks.”

Here’s the IndyCar weekend schedule:

At-track schedule (all times local):

Thursday, Sept. 14
10 a.m. – Noon – Verizon IndyCar Series open testing, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (timing only)
2 – 6 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series open testing, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (timing only)

Friday, Sept. 15
10 a.m. – 10:45 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice 1, RaceControl.IndyCar.com
2:15 – 3 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice 2, NBCSN (live)
3:05 – 3:20 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series pit stop practice

Saturday, Sept. 16
11 – 11:45 a.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice 3, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (live)
3:30 – 4:45 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series qualifying (three rounds of knockout qualifying), NBCSN (live)

Sunday, Sept. 17
11:30 a.m. – Noon – Verizon IndyCar Series warmup, RaceControl.IndyCar.com
3:10 p.m. – Driver introductions
3:30 p.m. – NBCSN on air
3:43 p.m. – Start engines command
3:50 p.m. – GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma (85 laps/202.7 miles), NBCSN (live)

Here’s last year’s top 10:

1. Simon Pagenaud (pole)
2. Graham Rahal
3. Juan Pablo Montoya
4. Ryan Hunter-Reay
5. Alexander Rossi
6. Josef Newgarden
7. Helio Castroneves
8. Marco Andretti
9. Charlie Kimball
10. Sebastien Bourdais

Here’s last year’s Firestone Fast Six:

1. Simon Pagenaud
2. Helio Castroneves
3. Juan Pablo Montoya
4. Will Power
5. Graham Rahal
6. Ryan Hunter-Reay

Tequila Patron to end ESM and IMSA partnerships after 2018 season

Photo courtesy of IMSA
1 Comment

Earlier on Monday, Tequila Patron, a long-time sponsor in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, both at the team level – they have a long standing partnership with Tequila Patron ESM – and the series level, announced that they will be ending their sponsorships at the end of the 2018 season.

After sponsoring Highcroft Racing in 2008 and 2009 in the American Le Mans Series, Tequila Patron and ESM formed a partnership in 2010 to launch their own team. Since then, they have scored overall wins in the Rolex 24 at Daytona, Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring, and the Petit Le Mans. They have also competed internationally, in both Prototype and GT categories.

“On behalf of the entire Extreme Speed Motorsports organization, it has been an honor to represent such an amazing brand for the past 13 years,” said team co-owner Scott Sharp via a team release.

“I have the deepest gratitude for all of (Patron CEO and ESM co-founder) Ed Brown’s support. Together we have tackled various challenges, won races at each step, and built ESM into such an incredible team. Simultaneously, it has been thrilling to watch Ed and his team build the Patrón brand in a meteoric fashion and along the way become an icon in the motorsports world! We will miss not carrying the now infamous green and black livery, but the same passion for excellence will remain!”

IMSA President Scott Atherton also expressed gratitude toward Patron for their long-time involvement.

“IMSA and Patron Spirits have enjoyed a fantastic partnership for more than a decade. Tequila Patron rose through the IMSA ranks, from a high-profile team sponsor with Patron Highcroft Racing beginning in 2008, through its entitlement sponsorship of the Patron GT3 Challenge starting in 2009, and its presenting sponsorship of the American Le Mans Series beginning in 2010,” Atherton detailed.

He continued, “Tequila Patron continued in a prominent position as the American Le Mans Series merged with GRAND-AM to create the new IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and has been our entitlement partner for the Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup since 2014 in addition to its longstanding support of the Tequila Patron ESM race team and its pair of Nissan DPi race cars.

“All associated with IMSA – competitors, promoter partners, series officials and fans – will miss the iconic Tequila Patrón brand next year. On behalf of IMSA, we thank CEO Ed Brown and Tequila Patron for all they have done over the many years to help us grow IMSA and the sport as a whole. We’re more proud than words can express to have counted Tequila Patron among our family of premium brand partners.”

Team co-owner Scott Sharp, in a story posted on SportsCar365, asserted that the ESM team has every intention of continuing in 2019.

“We’re working on a number of options,” Sharp said. “Obviously I think we’ve singly got the best team we’ve ever had, personnel-wise. Having been refining over the years and making selected additions, we’ve gotten ourselves to be super strong. The goal is keeping everyone together. We’re working through a few different options that will hopefully allow us to do that.”

Follow@KyleMLavigne